MONTGOMERY, AL (WBRC) - Ask any law enforcement officer in Alabama if they've seen the effects of cuts to mental health services and chances are, they will say yes. Encounters between police and the mentally ill are often volatile, unpredictable and can be deadly.
According to a database of fatal officer involved shootings compiled by the Washington Post, 825 people have been shot and killed by police in 2017 and one quarter of the dead had a known mental illness. The database reports 18 fatal officer-involved shootings in Alabama this year with four involving a mentally ill person.
"Since police officers increasingly respond to calls involving someone suffering from a mental illness, it is of utmost importance for our officers to have the skills to deal with the situation in a way that is beneficial to all parties," said Shelby County Sheriff John Samaniego.
His office has been proactive in training on this issue. Earlier this year, the Shelby County Sheriff's Office hosted a four-day crisis intervention training (CIT) based in part on the curriculum offered at Auburn University Montgomery (AUM) by the Alabama Crime Prevention Clearinghouse. Between 12-15 patrol officers and jail employees from Shelby County have undergone the training at AUM in both 2005 and 2015, according to Lt. Cody Sumners, who has advocated for this training.
A big part of training is learning the signs and symptoms of mental illness, so officers can respond to potentially irrational or confusing behavior- "in a way that helps the person get the help that they need to deal with their situation and also keeps officers safe," said Sheriff Samaniego.
Linda Wright, director of the Alabama Crime Prevention Clearinghouse, said they began this training in 2001, and a few years ago partnered with NAMI Alabama (National Alliance on Mental Illness) due to increased demand.
WBRC attended an afternoon session in a recent three-day CIT program offered at AUM for 40 members of law enforcement from around the state. The agenda included classes about schizophrenia, bipolar and mood disorders, substance abuse, Alzheimer's disease and dementia, plus understanding and preventing suicide. Officers also learned the do's and don'ts of interacting with the mentally ill, with advice that included being aware of personal space, speaking calmly and slowly and using active listening skills.
"We're not trying to make psychologists out of them, we're not trying to make them into social workers or counselors," explained Wright. "I think the overall goal is to teach them that mental illness is a disease. It's not something that people turn on and turn off," she said.
The CIT training at AUM included role playing exercises in which officers interacted with someone playing the part of a mentally ill person. The scenarios represented typical calls for police: a disruptive driver having a manic episode, an elderly man with dementia resisting officers' help and a suspicious person outside a store, slapping himself in the head and speaking nonsensically.
"These are situations that we already experience when we're working on the streets in Birmingham on a daily basis," said Wanda Patterson, Community Service Officer with Birmingham Police. Patterson was one of those attending the CIT training in Montgomery. She said mandatory mental health training would be beneficial for law enforcement in Alabama.
"It will enable us to learn how to respond to persons with mental illness in a better way, so that there can be less fatalities," Patterson said. "By learning to identify what a person may be experiencing or what type of diagnosis they may have, then we're better able to assist them."
(Officers participate in crisis intervention training at AUM)
Crisis intervention training is not mandatory for law enforcement in Alabama, although earlier this year, the Alabama Legislature passed a joint resolution calling for more mental health awareness training at Alabama's basic training academy and encouraging law enforcement agencies statewide to utilize this training for continuing education. The joint resolution provided no funding to support more in-service or continuing education training for certified law enforcement.
Louis Zook, Chief of Staff for the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission (APOSTC), said the 13-week police academy will double the time new recruits are trained on mental illness from four to eight hours starting in January 2018. He explained that curriculum revisions are done on a regular basis, but to double the time that a topic is covered was extraordinary.
"30 years ago mental health wasn't even taught in the academy," Zook said. "It's become more and more of a factor in the daily lives of officers and we believe very strongly that this is an important component of training," he said.
NAMI Alabama has been on the front lines of advocating for better police training. James Walsh, Ex-Officio of NAMI Alabama's Executive Committee said he is thrilled that their work is paying off, but more funding is needed for police training, as well as better access to mental health treatment at the community level.
"We need to handle these folks on the front end, so they don't meet police in crisis on the back end of their lives," said Walsh.